Will Playing a Sport Help with Ivy League Admissions?

We recently had a student who was incredibly motivated and was interested in delving into the world of materials engineering. We gave them many online course suggestions, had them read a book from the book list we created, and helped them put together a plan to create a makerspace at their school. Over the course of three months, barely anything happened. The student was able to start the book and the online course, but kept putting off the real project: creating a makerspace at school. This was because they were so preoccupied with homework during their off-time between track tournaments and after school track team practice.

Practice and tournaments took up most of the hours in their week, and when they weren’t practicing or at a tournament, they were struggling to unwind, get enough sleep, take care of their bodies between intense activities, and then finish all of their homework. We finally had to ask the question: are you getting recruited for track? The answer was no, and we had to have a frank conversation with the student and their parents to let them know what we thought: they needed to quit track.

When kids are little, parents enroll them in various sports because it’s just what you do to help grow your kid’s community and social network while keeping them active. Oftentimes, they get pretty good at said sport, and then fast forward to high school and they’ve been playing soccer since they were 9 and can’t possibly imagine their life without it.

We have a lot of students who play sports in high school and who absolutely love it. We think it’s so important to stay active, particularly through high school and beyond, but once you begin to factor in college admissions, sports become a bit more of a complicated issue. Namely because sports, while great for your mind, body, and spirit, are an incredible time suck. As a result, we often have to have pretty tough conversations with our students who play sports because it all centers on one question: are you getting recruited?

The short version is: if you’re not getting recruited by colleges for a sport, you really shouldn’t be spending all of your time playing that sport. In the same way that there’s no point in spending 2 hours a day working on an app with your friend that’s essentially identical to an app that someone else has already built, sold, and made $1.2 million off of. Sure, it’s fun, you’re with people you like, you learn new skills, and teams are incredibly valuable in terms of promoting cooperating, sportsmanship, and responsibility. All of that said, sports are the center of discussions around weighing short and long-term benefits. Oftentimes, this is the first time that students have been confronted with really thinking critically about how they spend their time because we encourage that from the very beginning of our work with students.

During our first conversation with students, we ask them to take us through every hour of their week and map out how they are spending their time. Then, we look for pockets that aren’t being utilized to their fullest extent and areas for improvement. Sports can take up between 10-20 hours per week, between practices, games, and recovery—this is a lot of time that can be spent further developing a skill, taking an online course, or reading an entire book in a week.

We understand that it might sound harsh to say that if you’re not going to be a professional soccer player then you should quit the soccer team. In the game of college admissions, though, free time is the out-of-nowhere play that often ends up penalizing students to the point where they’re thrown out of the game entirely: sports turn into a time suck that allows nothing else to get done.

Again, we are all about optimizing the time that students have and developing interests in a meaningful and tangible way. We seek to produce deliverables for students as early on in their high school career as possible, but it’s hard to find time to do meaningful research with professors, build websites or apps, take local college courses, and start companies when we have to work around practice times.

The question that you should ask yourself is: might the time that you are spending at practice and on the field, in the pool, on the court, or at the track be better spent growing another academic or specialized interest? If you’re not good enough to score some serious attention from college recruiters, then we’d say the answer is: YES.

We know that this can be a tough conversation to have with your kids, and we know that it can be hard to hear this if you’re a student. The silver lining is that this challenge could easily be turned into an essay. Maybe. Or it's a valuable learning experience. Let us know if you have any questions about how sports and college admissions intersect. That’s why we’re here.